Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 27: 1933
Next: Chapter 29

28

Still wearing her dressing gown, Gwen laid all her clothes out on her bed, plus a swathe or two of sari fabric that she’d thought particularly pretty. It was becoming harder to find an inexpensive dressmaker and she was going to have to ask Naveena to alter some of her clothes. All round the world times were still hard, with some fabrics not only scarce but also expensive. A little while before, Fran had written about the new ready-to-wear clothes shops popping up all over London, and Gwen felt grateful that her relationship with her cousin had been, at least, partially restored, and no mention had been made of Ravasinghe.

Gwen read that, just as Laurence had found ways to streamline tea production, fashion houses had discovered less expensive ways of manufacturing too, and were using new and cheaper fabrics instead of more costly materials. Fran was particularly keen on the new sheer stockings from America, and had sent a saucy photograph of herself showing rather too much leg, and wearing a new rayon dress.

Most of Gwen’s best dresses were made of silk and awfully outmoded now; according to Fran, nobody in London or New York would be seen dead in a flapper dress. She’d included a recent American copy of Good Housekeeping to prove it.

Gwen studied the page where the magazine had fallen open. Some of the girls wore feminine two-piece outfits with simple blouses, or a little cardigan and longish wrap skirts. It was a lean look that she could imagine Fran bursting out of, though it would suit Verity well by lending a touch of elegance to her normally lanky appearance. If she curled her hair and wore some red lipstick, it could be the making of her. Being so petite herself, Gwen preferred the sweet short skirts of the twenties.

But her purpose today wasn’t to work out how to get herself more up to date, it was to decide which dresses Naveena might cut down to make clothes for Liyoni. She picked up a few silk dresses, but discarded them right away. A serving girl dressed in silk would attract attention. It was one thing providing for her daughter from a distance; it was much more testing to actually have her living in the house. She hadn’t slept a wink since the child had arrived, and most of the time the knot in her stomach had made it impossible to eat. She flinched at a noise outside her room and knew she’d have to find a way to iron out the dread that was building.

She picked out her old cotton day dresses – the fine wash-softened fabric might do well for the child – and created a small pile of sprigged cotton items: two or three skirts and a favourite but badly ripped red broderie anglaise dress. She rarely wore red but this dress was pretty. She folded the chosen items over her arm and carried them to the nursery.

Naveena was sitting on the floor with an abacus in front of her, and while the child moved the beads across and counted in Sinhala, Naveena was repeating the words in English.

‘What about introducing her to the rest of the household staff?’ Gwen said.

Naveena looked up. ‘Lady, do not break your head. I do that.’

‘I’ve told Laurence that you have had to bring an orphan relative to live here,’ Gwen said.

She’d had to force her legs from trembling as she’d lied to Laurence, and when he’d looked up from his newspaper and frowned, she’d pinched her own flesh hard to keep from giving way.

‘Darling, Naveena doesn’t have relatives. We are her family.’

She took a breath. ‘Well, it appears she does have this one relative, after all. A distant cousin.’

There was a silence, during which Gwen fidgeted, straightening her skirt and tightening the pins in her hair as she fought to steady her nerves.

‘I don’t like the sound of this,’ he said. ‘Naveena has a good heart and I suspect someone has told her a cock-and-bull story about this missing relative and she has swallowed it. I shall talk to her myself.’

‘No!’

He looked surprised.

‘I mean, you’ve always said that the household is my responsibility. Let me deal with this.’

She waited and gave him a little smile as he paused before he spoke. ‘Very well. But I think we should do our best to find a more suitable home for her.’

Gwen frowned at the memory and looked across at Naveena again. ‘Laurence isn’t happy and Verity is curious as a cat.’

Naveena shook her head.

‘You don’t think I should trust my sister-in-law, do you?’

‘After his Lady die, the girl not happy. Unhappy person can be bad. Scared person too.’

‘Is Verity scared?’

Naveena shrugged.

‘What is she scared of?’

‘I cannot say …’

Naveena’s voice trailed off and there was silence.

The ayah would say no more. She rarely gave away her innermost thoughts, especially about the family, though Gwen wished she would. She couldn’t think of any reason for Verity’s fear, other than the dread of losing her brother, though that might explain her depression and the way she clung to Laurence.

‘I haven’t said anything to Hugh, and he hasn’t seen Liyoni yet.’

Naveena lowered her head and continued the lesson.

‘Maybe you could take her round the garden later, when Hugh has his rest,’ Gwen added.

During dessert, Laurence opened the post. Nothing of real interest for Gwen, except another note from Fran enclosing a snapshot of the latest ladieswear. Gwen was pleased that, judging by the tone of this letter, things really did seem to have completely returned to normal.

Laurence unwrapped a cylindrical item. A magazine rolled out, then lay, curled back on itself, on the white tablecloth.

‘What on earth?’ he said, picking it up and flattening it. ‘It looks like an American magazine.’

‘Can I leave the table, Mummy?’ Hugh piped up.

‘Yes, but no racing about until your food has gone down. And don’t go near the lake on your own. Promise me?’

Hugh nodded, though Gwen had recently spotted him attempting to fish from a narrow promontory at the water’s edge.

As Hugh left the room, Laurence’s frown deepened.

‘Is there a note with it?’ she asked.

He picked up the magazine, and when he shook it, an envelope fell out.

‘There you are,’ she said. ‘Who is it from?’

‘Give me a moment.’ He tore open the envelope and stared at it with raised brows. ‘It’s from Christina.’

‘Goodness! What does she say?’ She tried to keep her voice level, but for the first time in years she felt discomfited by the mention of Christina’s name.

He scanned the note then looked up at her. ‘She says she has a marvellous idea for us, and that I should examine the magazine to see if I can guess what it is.’

Gwen wiped her mouth and put down her pudding spoon. Her stomach was knotted and there wasn’t any hope she could swallow another forkful. ‘Really, Laurence! Haven’t we had enough of Christina’s ideas for one lifetime?’

Laurence glanced up at the snappy tone in her voice, shook his head and then flicked the pages. ‘It wasn’t her fault, you know. Nobody foresaw the Wall Street crash.’

Gwen pursed her lips, but kept her opinion to herself. ‘So what’s in the magazine?’

‘Blowed if I know. It appears to be trash. Just endless advertisements for shoe polish, soap powder and the like, strung together with an occasional article.’

‘Do you think she’s bought the magazine?’

‘Unlikely. All she says is that she has an idea that will transform our fortunes.’

‘But why would a magazine be of interest to us?’

As Laurence threw it down and prepared to leave, Gwen asked if she could use the Daimler to drive to Hatton. With her fabrics now sorted out, she needed buttons and thread.

Laurence, standing by the door with his hand on the handle and his chin jutting out, paused.

‘Well, can I?’ she said.

He hesitated for a moment longer. ‘Actually, I haven’t paid the garage bill yet.’

‘Why not?’

He reddened slightly and looked away. ‘I didn’t want to say. We were a bit short last month and all the cash had to go on wages. Should be clear soon. After the next auctions, that is.’

‘Oh, Laurence.’

He gave a brief nod, then, just as he was about to leave the room, twisted back and continued briskly. ‘I forgot, Christina also says she’ll be arriving soon to discuss this idea of hers. And she has asked if she can stay here for a few days.’

He shut the door quietly and Gwen sat alone, feeling appalled. She was already on tenterhooks trying to settle Liyoni without arousing suspicion, and now Christina would be staying with them. On top of everything else, how would she cope if Laurence fell under the American woman’s spell again? Despite everything he had said to convince her otherwise, she did not trust Christina, and the suspicion that Christina still had designs on Laurence only compounded the strain she already felt. She leant against the wall and closed her eyes.

As it happened, by the afternoon Naveena had developed a fever and was unfit to work, so with a sinking heart, Gwen had to look after Liyoni herself. At first it didn’t go well. In an effort to control her nerves, Gwen was terse and offhand, and the child resisted, crying and clinging to the old ayah’s bedpost. After Naveena stroked her hands and whispered to her, she eventually gave in and followed Gwen through the passageway. Gwen had no idea what had been said, but Naveena’s instinctive sympathy must have settled the little girl.

In the bedroom, Gwen studied the child’s possessions. Her clothing consisted of what she stood in, plus a beaded anklet, a spare top and a ragged length of fabric.

She took Liyoni to the bathroom and showed her the bath. Though Naveena had washed the little girl, Gwen wanted to give her a good scrubbing before introducing her to Hugh. Self-conscious and hesitant, she tidied the towels and rearranged the soaps, then – not wanting the little girl to pick up on her anxiety – she composed herself. She had expected Liyoni to resist, but when the water reached halfway up, the little girl jumped in fully dressed. With her wet clothes now sticking to her, she looked thin, with a painfully fragile neck and a head full of long curly hair that had matted in places.

Gwen took a breath, still not knowing how to behave. When she poured a small amount of shampoo on Liyoni’s hair and rubbed the child’s scalp to lather up, she felt as if she might lose her nerve. But the little girl giggled and Gwen’s heart lifted a little.

After the bath, the girl struggled out of her clothes, and Gwen handed her a large white towel, then left her while she went back to the nursery to dig out an old shirt of Hugh’s.

Naveena, poor soul, was fast asleep and looking pale. It was a lot for her to undertake at her age. As Gwen gazed down on her, feeling guilty, she heard a scream and rushed back through to her bedroom.

Verity, red-faced, was jabbing a shaking finger at Liyoni, while holding the towel by the tips of her fingers. Fear sliced through Gwen.

‘I found her trying to steal this towel,’ Verity declared.

The naked child stood by the bed looking terrified, her arms crossed over her chest, her hair dripping water on the floor.

Gwen felt a stab of anguish, then squared her shoulders and felt so angry she had to fight her desire to hit Verity. ‘She wasn’t stealing it. I gave her a bath. Give me the towel.’

Verity hung on to it. ‘What! While you leave Hugh outside playing all alone?’

‘Hugh is fine,’ Gwen said, brushing Verity’s words aside. She marched over and snatched the towel, then squatted down to wrap it round Liyoni.

‘Have you lost your senses? She can’t be in your room like this, Gwen. She’ll be absolutely crawling.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Lice, Gwen. Bugs.’

‘She’s clean. She’s had a bath.’

‘You said she was here to help Naveena. She’s a servant. You can’t treat her as if she’s one of us.’

‘I’m doing no such thing,’ Gwen snapped as she stood. ‘And, Verity, as this is my house and not yours any more, I would appreciate it if you didn’t interfere in what I do. Naveena is sick. The child is alone in the world. I am simply doing the charitable thing, and if you can’t find it in your heart to understand that, the sooner you go back to your husband the better.’

Verity turned bright red and scowled, but didn’t speak for a moment or two.

Gwen squatted again to rub the child dry then glanced up over her shoulder. ‘Why are you still in here?’

‘You don’t understand, Gwen,’ Verity said, speaking so quietly Gwen could barely hear. ‘I can’t go back.’

‘What?’

Verity coloured up, shook her head and then abruptly left the room.

Gwen swallowed her anger. The timing of Liyoni coming to live at the house could not be worse. The place would be heaving. Just when she need some peace and quiet to get to know her daughter unobserved, people would be asking questions, wanting to be fed and asking how she was. The last thing she needed was Verity hanging around watching her, or Christina hanging around watching Laurence.

She tried to look confident as she held Liyoni’s hand, though inside she was quaking. She still felt awkward about the colour of the little girl’s skin, but whatever she felt could not be allowed to count; settling the girl was what mattered, and what was at stake if she dropped her guard.

The sound of Hugh thumping a ball against an outside wall carried through the house. He must have heard her coming too, for when Gwen turned the corner he’d already stopped throwing the ball and was watching with one hand on his hip. His stance, an exact replica of his father’s, made her heart skip.

‘This is Liyoni,’ she said, trying to sound perfectly normal as they walked across the terrace. ‘She is a relative of Naveena’s and she’s going to live here as Naveena’s helper.’

‘Why does she walk funny?’

‘She has a limp, that’s all. I think there’s something wrong with her foot.’

Gwen was struck by Hugh’s stocky legs and his shorts covered with grass-stains. He loved rolling down the slightly sloping terraces, only stopping in the nick of time before the grass fell away. He gave her a toothy grin, and she smiled at his healthy pink cheeks and his strong nose with a streak of mud across it. Liyoni, standing not a yard away, looked fragile by comparison.

‘Can she play ball?’

Gwen smiled again, pulled him to her and gave him a hug. ‘Well, she’s not really here to play with you, Hugh.’

His face crumpled. ‘Why not? Doesn’t she know how? I can teach her.’

‘Perhaps not today. But she could go swimming with you tomorrow. She swims like a fish.’

‘How do you know?’

Gwen tapped the side of her nose. ‘Because I am a supreme and wonderful being who knows and sees everything.’

He laughed. ‘Don’t be silly, Mummy. That’s Jesus.’

‘Actually, I have a rather splendid idea. Why not come inside and help teach Liyoni some English? Would you like that or are you too full of beans?’

‘Oh, yes please, Mummy, but I didn’t have beans for lunch.’

She laughed at their little standing joke and gave him another quick hug, but Liyoni, who stood watching, only glowered. Oh dear, Gwen thought, this might be tricky – I hope she doesn’t think we’re laughing at her.

Despite her misgivings, Gwen had to admit that she hungered for more of her daughter. She watched her constantly, but the gap between who the child was and who she ought to have been was too great a distance to bridge. That her feelings for Liyoni were nothing like her love for Hugh pained her, though when she did allow them to surface and found herself craving to comfort the child, she did not know how. She wanted to understand how Liyoni felt about being there and what she thought about everything, but above all she longed to make her feel safe. She rubbed her smarting eyes with the heels of her palms. It tormented her to think of how she had abandoned her daughter as such a tiny helpless baby, and she knew that what her little girl really needed was love.

Once Naveena recovered, Gwen languished in her room imprisoned by her conflicting feelings and the fear that she might somehow give herself away if she was seen too much with Liyoni. Time dragged, and whenever she glanced at the clock, she was surprised the birds were still singing. Was this what life was going to be now – living with a shallow breath and looking over her shoulder? Yet no matter how long she remained in her room, she couldn’t get away from the feeling she was stepping closer all the time to the chance event that would signal the end of everything.

Hearing Hugh’s voice, Gwen went to the window to look out. He’d found a ragged skipping rope and she watched as he attempted to teach Liyoni to skip. Each time the little girl tried, she ended up tangled in the rope. It didn’t seem to upset her, and she giggled as Hugh gently untangled her. For Gwen it was heartbreaking to see Hugh unknowingly playing with his twin sister and looking so happy.

When Naveena went outside, Gwen continued to observe, taking a step back so as to remain out of sight. Despite Hugh’s protestations, Naveena led the girl away, and soon after she heard voices in the nursery. She waited, and then went through to watch the ayah instruct Liyoni in the art of folding clothes. She stayed for a while, excluded from the pair as Liyoni began to sing in Sinhala while Naveena hummed.

‘What is that?’ Gwen asked when they had finished.

‘A nursery rhyme, but, Lady, the child seems to tire very easily, and she does cough so.’

‘Give her some linctus. She’s probably just getting used to the changes in her life.’

When she heard footsteps in the main house corridor, Gwen hurried off, feeling unnerved.

The next morning, it was lovely outside. Gwen stood on the lower terrace and felt that the air itself was singing, not the mosquitoes, the bees or the water as it rippled across the lake. But then, as she watched the birds dive to the surface of the lake, she realized someone was actually singing. It was a tinkling, lilting sound, almost a low whistle, and it was coming from the water. She surveyed the scene, but could see no sign of anyone.

Hugh came racing up behind her and called out. ‘I’ve put my swimmers on, Mummy!’

She spun round and caught him in her arms as he charged down the last few steps.

‘I saw her go. I wanted to go with her, but she didn’t wait.’

‘Who, darling?’

‘The new girl.’

‘Her name is Liyoni, sweetheart.’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘And you’re saying she’s swimming in the lake?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

Gwen felt a lick of fear and held her breath as she scanned the lake. What if Liyoni swam to the end of the lake and then found her way back to the river that led to her village? Anything might happen to her. The thought took hold as she gazed at the water and, as blood rushed to her head, for a split second she even wished for the river to take the child. But then, with her mind in turmoil and horrified at herself, she could hardly believe that she could ever think such a thing.

She felt a tug on her sleeve.

‘Look, Mummy,’ Hugh was saying. ‘She’s on that island. She just climbed out. Mummy, she is good at swimming, isn’t she? I can’t go that far.’

Gwen sighed in relief.

‘Is it all right if I go in now?’ Hugh asked.

He’d been told he must always ask permission, and she wondered how she might find a way to allow Liyoni to swim unrestricted, while still maintaining the rule for Hugh. Water was like a magnet to the girl, and Gwen feared she could no more keep out of it than she could stop breathing.

Gwen watched Hugh’s stocky little body as he leapt into the water with the biggest splash. What he lacked in fluidity as a swimmer, he made up for in noise, and his shrieks and yells continued until Liyoni swam back. Just before she climbed out, she twirled in the water, whirling like a dervish with her hair spinning out around her. Then, as they both got out and shook themselves, the little girl began to cough. Hugh stared at her, looking embarrassed, but beamed in delight when the coughing stopped and she smiled at him.

‘Where’s Wilf?’ Gwen said.

‘Oh, Wilf’s boring. He doesn’t like swimming anyway.’

‘Shall we go in and see if we can persuade the appu to make pancakes?’

‘Can the girl –’

Gwen frowned.

‘I mean, can Liyoni come too?’

‘Perhaps just this once.’

As Hugh reached out to take Liyoni’s hand, she seemed not to mind, and as Gwen watched the pair run up the steps ahead of her, hand in hand, her heart skipped a beat and she felt a depth of feeling for the girl she had not experienced before. Her eyes watered, but just then she noticed Verity coming down the steps towards her.

‘Laurence asked me to tell you he wants to speak to you in the drawing room.’

‘Why?’

Verity smiled, but it was perfunctory. ‘He didn’t say.’

Gwen hurried to the drawing room and found Laurence standing with a rolled-up newspaper under his arm. He turned at the sound of her footsteps, his face impassive. He knows, she thought in the short silence, and he is about to throw me out. She cast around for what to say.

‘I –’

He interrupted. ‘I saw Hugh out there with the little girl. I thought we had decided.’

Numb with tension, she forced herself to respond. ‘Pardon?’

He sat down and leant against the back of the sofa. ‘I thought we had decided the child wasn’t to stay.’

Gwen struggled to suppress her relief. He didn’t know. She stood behind the sofa so that she could rub his shoulders, but also to hide her face from him.

‘No,’ she said, taking her time. ‘We agreed that I’d deal with it. And I am, but she isn’t too well. She has a cough.’

‘Is it contagious?’

She steeled herself. ‘I don’t think so, and Hugh is lonely.’

As she stopped rubbing and took a step back, he straightened up and twisted round to look at her. ‘Darling, you know I’d be happy to help if the child really was related.’

‘I know, but can’t you just trust me on this?’

‘Come on, Gwen. As I said before, we already know Naveena has no relatives. And the thing is, I’d rather Hugh didn’t get too attached to her.’

She paused momentarily before she replied. ‘I don’t understand.’

He looked puzzled. ‘Isn’t it obvious? If they become close he’ll miss her terribly when she’s gone. So, really, the sooner the better. Surely you agree?’

She could feel the pain racing to her temples as she stared at him. How could she possibly agree?

He reached out a hand. ‘Are you all right? You don’t seem to be yourself.’

Gwen shook her head.

‘I understand you’re doing your best, but –’

She broke in. ‘It’s not fair, Laurence. It’s really not. Where the hell do you expect her to go!’

No longer able to cope with her feelings, her heart splintered, and all her efforts to protect Laurence and their marriage seemed to crumble. She didn’t want Liyoni to go, but he had no idea what she was going through; indeed, what she had gone through all these years. He was right – she was doing her best – but he did not know that trying to balance the conflicting needs of her husband, Hugh and the little girl was more than she could bear. Completely losing control of herself, she left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Previous: Chapter 27: 1933
Next: Chapter 29